Introduction. I think the major disagreements over Operation Iraqi Freedom can be simplified to three divergent areas, which I have labelled the Three Strategic Forks. This is probably an over-simplified explanation, but that's just how smart I am not. I use the terms "realist" and "liberal" in the political science international relations sense, and I incorporate the terminology of Tom Barnett, of whom I am a big fan.
The first fork is Isolationism versus Intervention.
Isolationists come from a broad swathe, from radicals who want to remove US influence from the world, to dogmatic realists who see 9/11 as the punishment for liberal Wilsonianism, to Michael Moore types who see the War on Terror as the elites' distraction from the masses-versus-elites populist issues they care about.
Interventionists would be the majority of us, folks who accept the notion of US intervention overseas, although the range and type of preferred intervention differs. For example, if you think the US was right to topple the Taliban and disrupt al Qaeda's terrorist factories, even if you do not support OpIF, then you are an interventionist.
After taking the Intervention fork, the second fork is what I call the Revenge Mission versus Global Solutions.
Most realists equate security with threat, so they prefer the revenge mission option for the War on Terror, i.e., kill the terrorists (the symptoms) - which makes Operation Enduring Freedom acceptable - and focus on keeping the wild things out of the homeland by building higher walls and stronger gates.
Most liberals - the majority of Americans - prefer global solutions, i.e., addressing the global causes of the 9/11-related terrorist phenomenon as well as the symptoms. Liberals consider the spread of democracy and globalisation as the best solution for 9/11-related terrorism.
A good summary of President Bush Jr's liberal approach to the War on Terror:
Among the momentous effects of Al-Qaeda's violent strikes against the United States on September 11, 2001, was a re-orientation of American policy toward the Middle East. The new paradigm adopted in Washington viewed much of the world as being divided into opponents versus supporters of terrorism. Furthermore, the roots of terrorism were ascribed to Mideast regimes that caused social and economic failures while pursuing the interests of small groups of ruling elites.
After taking the Global Solutions fork, the third fork is what I call the Slow Burn versus the Race.
After more-or-less marching in step at the first two forks, many folks disagree at this third strategic fork.
At this stage, the "Core" (a Tom Barnett term) actors who oppose Operation Iraqi Freedom want a Slow Burn. They agree with the liberal belief that the Middle East must be reformed, but they want to make a realist compromise. As such, they concede Operation Enduring Freedom and a limited increase in engagement with the Middle East, but they are unwilling to bear the commitment, cost and uncertainty of comprehensively engaging the causes of terrorism in the "Gap." Instead, they would rather remain with pre-9/11 rituals and processes (e.g., the President Clinton approach to terrorism) where they are comfortable. They believe, or convince themselves, the natural flow of globalisation will eventually solve the causes. Beyond the Slow Burn, they will react to symptoms as they flare up.
The "Core" actors who support OpIF view the war on terror as a race where the "Core" must 'connect' the Middle East to democracy and globalisation before this proactive, aggressive, and capable enemy can 'disconnect' the region. The attacks of 9/11 were intended as an opening 'System Perturbation' (again, Barnett-speak) to disconnect the democratic, globalised community from encroaching on the Muslim world. OpIF, in this context, is an opening counter-Perturbation that replaces the pre-9/11 paradigm of the West's limited, self-conscious and self-serving engagement in the Middle East with intensive interaction between the globalised "Core" community and the region.
The greater purpose of OpIF for those who support the Race, therefore, is to compel the globalised community to a deeper, long-term commitment to the Middle East - the same deeper commitment many other folks in the "Core" oppose. This assessment further holds forth that the terrorists are rapidly moving to sever the vital connections between the Middle East and the globalised community, using the methodology exemplified by the enemy in Iraq with his 'anti-war' enabler in the West. If we fail to succeed in this strong liberal push now, in OpIF, then we will lose the connections needed to effect change in the oppression-extremism dichotomy squeezing the Middle East.
In sum, those who support the Slow Burn refuse to reach past their own comfort zone. Those who support the Race believe the Slow Burn by itself cannot work, because of the existing pre-9/11 conditions that extinguished liberalization in the region, and because post-9/11, the proactive terrorists will do their best to disallow the Slow Burn to work.
We must respect the enemy. In my opinion, the terrorists are racing and they fully realize what is at stake for them in Iraq. For those in the race - terrorists, Iraqis and nation-builders - the central battle of the War on Terror, in the present and for the future, is unequivocally being fought right now in Iraq.